I had not even heard the name Bethel or Woodstock until my sergeant informed me, I had volunteered to go there.
While it was never quite clear, we were told a crew from a backup helicopter at Fort Drum had been reassigned, and they needed someone from our medical holding company to take their place.
My best friend, Hank, a hippie living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, had been talking for weeks about something called “An Aquarian Exposition,” which I later learned was the original name for the Woodstock Festival.
As a volunteer at one of the runaway centers, Hank had heard about the event from Abbie Hoffman. Hank ranted and raved about how he was finally going to see Jimi Hendrix perform live.
Max, our mutual gay friend, however, was concerned over Hank’s health and urged him not to go. Hank routinely suffered from bronchitis even in the height of summer and Max feared the trip to the mountains would only make his illness worse. Hank would not be deterred.
Pauly, another friend from Little falls, told Rob, our genius friend from high school, that this was all hype, and convinced him to stay home. The whole thing would turn out to be a flop.
Garrick, the music lover of our crew, actually bought tickets, grumbling when he, Carroll and Alf arrived to find the fences down and crowds swarming without tickets. The three had driven up the New York Thruway, turning west at the Monticello Raceway until the road turned into a parking lot and were forced to walk the rest of the way. Garrick had come for the music. Carroll had come to get high. Alf in lust with Carroll hoped to get lucky but lost her in the crowd as soon as they arrived.
Back home Rob got more and more furious as the radio reports detailed this as the musical event of the century and how the concert was now free. At this point, Pauly came up with a scheme and talked Rob into using his car to ferry kids from New York City to within walking distance of the festival –for a fee.
This was the summer of 1969 – already filled with monumental events such as the Stonewall Inn Riot Max had attended, but I had missed by a week, and the moon landing I had witnessed from a hospital ward full of wounded soldiers from Vietnam. But nothing prepared me for the awe of seeing Yasgar’s farm from the air and the mass of people gathered before the main stage. Afraid of heights, I clung to the straps while braver soldiers leaned out the open helicopter doors to gawk at the sight below.
On the ground, Hank, tripping on LSD he had brought with him from New York City, lost himself in the crowd, wandering through clouds of marijuana smoke and basking the sound of people singing along to the recorded music being broadcast from the stage. The LSD apparently masked just how much sicker he had become, although he later recalled just how cold he was during the night, and how the fog that settled over the farm on Friday night had seeped deep into his lungs.
Hank walked around in a constant haze, remembering visits to the Food for Love concession stand and the complaints some people had about soda cans bought there being only half filled. Unknown bands like Sweetwater and Quill played on the stage as warmups for the big acts that would follow, although Hank still waited for Hendrix, not scheduled to go on until late on Sunday.
Garrick wandered through the crowds, too, recalling how disgusted he was by the portable toilets near the concession stands, searching out the cleaner facilities near the more remote campgrounds near the puppet theater. He remembered later how impressed he was with Santana, although he already knew about the guitarist from work with Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. Unable to stand being cooped up in the crowd, Garrick mostly hung out near the free stage where not-too-famous local bands performed, although The Grateful Dead, once finished with their own gig on the main stage, played there, too. Garrick didn’t recall eating though he knew he must have and vaguely recalled being issued brown rise from one of the volunteer groups.
Hank remembered waking up to the sound of Grace Slick talking over the PA system, although in his haze he could not remember what she said. He remembered Sunday opening up in the early afternoon with Joe Cocker. Not long later the rains came, and he got soaked. Still tripping on LSD, Hank’s cough got worse and he made his way over to the hospital tent looking to get cough syrup or something. The place was wreck from the high winds and rain, but the doctors there told him had pneumonia and would have to be flown out to a local hospital for treatment.
Hank howled the whole way, begging them to let him stay, telling them he needed to wait to see Jimi Hendrix, while they told him if he waited, he would be dead.
It was not my helicopter that brought him out. We had flown back up briefly on Saturday, but never got the call to evacuate anyone, spending Saturday night at Fort Drum before returning Sunday, eventually making our way back to Fort Drum, where we embarked on buses to take us back to Fort Dix.
Garrick eventually made his way back to his car where he found Carroll, but not Alf. They followed the line of cars back to the Thruway and down into New Jersey. Alf showed up back in New Jersey a few days later but did not tell anyone about his adventures.
Pauly and Rob apparently made a killing with their ferry service – at least, Pauly did, letting rob pay the cost of gas.
Years later, I made my way back to Bethel by car, needing to see it from ground level, the fields of the farm still much as they were in 1969, other people there for a much smaller celebration, although looking and sounding much the way they did over those amazing three days in August.